My Up-and-Down Journey through the Wanderhome Book

I play and read a lot of tabletop RPG (TTRPG) books in my spare time. Whether delving into misty old-school fantasy games like Beyond the Wall or surveying a lavishly illustrated combat game like Lancer, reading RPG books can sometimes be nearly as fun as playing them.


Lately, though, I’ve been on the hunt for games that shake things up a bit. Luckily, a helpful friend (digitally) handed me a copy of Jay Dragon’s new pastoral-furry RPG Wanderhome. On first read, it gave me a lot of what I’ve been looking for in a new game. It jettisons dice and game masters in favour of a consent-based system of moves and go-round-the-table world building. To act, instead of testing fate with dice rolls or other wagering systems, players declare actions that make their character vulnerable or uncomfortable and receive a token. They can then spend that token to change something about the world. There is no accounting for failure here, and knowingly so.


Rather than drawing out a player’s cleverness or grit, these tokens create a sense of giving and taking. There are no real failures or even violence in Wanderhome’s world of the Hæth, but there are also no power trips or strokes of blessed fortune. As I read and leafed through the lovely illustrations and colours of the PDF, I felt a sense of gentleness and lightness.


For much of the book, however, that gentleness is tinged not with joy or celebration but with a seeping sense of loss. Many of the game’s setup steps talk about trauma, at least indirectly. For example, for each playbook or character class you choose traits, skills, or things that you love and then also something you have left behind. The Dancer, for example, gets to choose three dances they perform gladly and one that “they have left behind.” (p. 53) Pushing this theme further, the Exile playbook is almost all about trauma and loss. As an Exile, the player is asked: “You once had a place you called home. It’s gone now. Choose 1 true reason why you cannot return, 1 reason you tell everyone else, and 1 reason you worry is the truth.” (p. 57) It’s bleak stuff. There is obviously potential for compelling play and storytelling, but I admit I was put out by the whole thing. A case of mismatched expectations.


The game’s game-master-less system descends from a game concept called Belonging Outside Belonging. Belonging Outside Belonging (BOB) comes from the mind of designer Avery Alder. I don’t like any of Alder’s games at all because they feel more designed to create group therapy-style talk than gameplay per se. That’s a matter of taste, of course, and the BOB system finds itself put to much less dour and joyless use in Wanderhome. But the way that the player puts themselves in uncomfortable or vulnerable situations to earn the right to change the world in stronger ways still darkens the emotional palette of Wanderhome’s book.


I honestly had moments of anger reading this. I felt like the game I wanted, which was a light pastoral game of travel and talk, had been taken away from me. There are also annoying bits of writing in the book that set me off a little bit, and there is a much angrier version of this post in my drafts. I’m thankful that I didn’t publish it, though. Given more time to think about it, I don’t think I mind nearly as much as I did on my second and third reads of the book.


The reason for that is that the game has a number of guides and rules that help players cut out sad or traumatic matters from play. So there was no point to me getting angry or crestfallen about the game because the sad stuff just wouldn’t come up in my games. Even though it’s still in the book and has forever coloured my impression of the design and its goals, that’s not all bad. I might prefer a light, short campaign covering fluffy slice-of-life journeys through green fields, but the game has more ambition than that. Which I don’t like, but thankfully, the game is open to my preferences as well.

So the only major problems I have left with the book are related to some of the writing. Your mileage may vary, but I think that Wanderhome goes a little too far in keying players in to a narrow way of feeling while playing. Sections of the worldbuilding chapter on the Wanderhome world’s calendar, for example, are kind of maudlin and overwrought, leading up to the writer actually apologizing to the reader for how sad the previous bits had been. (p. 43) Like all of my complaints, this is an aesthetic problem for me, but it sets me on edge, nonetheless. I would have loved a more direct and confident presentation for the world, and I’m curious why the writer felt they had to say sorry to me. So though I’m over my first bouts of annoyance with the book, I’ll admit I don’t share the designer’s goals and still feel a little cheated by the split between the presentation of the book and its story content.


And so it goes. I’m still very happy my friend gave me my copy of the Wanderhome PDF and I look forward to playing with them as soon as I can. If nothing else, the worldbuilding settings and character materials in the back half of the book give you an open book to write in. And above all else, I love that the book has some compelling thoughts about why adventures involve travel and why people choose to move from place to place. Even if I don’t like a lot of the dour material, there’s probably enough sunshine for me after all. Take a look at Wanderhome if this all catches your eye. Just go in knowing what it is and what it’s trying to say before reading.

A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

Full Text of Drown in Time: The Essay

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This is the raw text from which selections were taken for my Drown in Time zine project, recently published earlier on this very blog. Best of luck in all endeavours!

When I was young, rainforests were not our friends. High seas, low lakes, these were not my friends. Living on the shores of Lake Michigan, air misted with rust, meant falling in love with sand, clay, limestone, and feral dogs. Not many people make video games about lakes. Games ramble around lakes, but rush to plunge into the sea.

Bloodborne and Ecco the Dolphin, my two most important partners in making this record, are about seas. They are about dread, loss, prying all those feelings apart. Naming those feelings is tough, because they lurk in cobwebs that can’t be grasped unless they are broken. If I had to give them names and form I would say:

“I was born too late to live in a standing world”
“I can feel my friends dying when I’m awake”

Oceans are our friends, or we will not live. Regardless, Ecco and Bloodborne are games kept apart by decades, fashions, even dimensions of illusionary geometry. But when I watch Ecco drown over and over again, lungs bursting deep underwater, spent from chasing cosmic beings who kidnapped his entire pod, the fevered Fishing Hamlet and its milk-eye moon spill into me. I’m not trying to convince anyone of this link, but in making this record of thoughts and feelings, in brightening the murkiest corners of my fear and grief, I found that thinking these two games together creates an insight to soothe harsh mourning and allow us to pass through and beyond the guilt that so often colours our feelings about the world and our friends of all forms with which we share it.

Opening my eyes. The tiny fishing hamlet welcomes a guest. A castaway from far-off Earths, born and bred for water, breathing in the sour fish-rank air wafting out from the shore. And here she is, oh! Even in darkly stillness she bears herself as queen of seas, a silk white whale washed up on the rank beach. ECCO’s body tightens; it’s a familiar, sickly feeling rotting his fins, poisoning his heart.

Sweet Queen, he thinks, unhallowed in her prime, left to putrefy in timeless, cursed, unyielding quiet. Around her alone the angry brine stench fallen across all of ECCO’s senses abated.

KOS: Weird and queer are you, dear breathing fish. That you know the words of the stars, the utterings of the hidden sky. Ears as yours are rare as time here, though…I am sad you must see this world of rags while living. Bow and tell me, KOS: how did you learn the speech of seas and skies?

ECCO bowed immediately. She was nothing like the other sky-beings he knew, and had made the sea her home, even if she had not been born here. Her corpse did not stir an inch, but the voice piercing as moonlight waxed through the sea, filling it with being.

ECCO: I have also met beings of the sky, Queen. She hated the water, or…she needed to devour it to live. But she whispered, in her way, before I sent her into nothingness.

KOS: The sea is bottomless with forgiveness. And with revenge. I can sense your pain––It is mine too, breathing fish. Both of us have seen our worlds unmade in moments. I sense that the stricken one who devoured your frithful life was a distant relation of mine. Not, fear not, that there is any love thickening blood in our kin-lines.

ECCO’s sound-eyes saw much. KOS, the bereaved mother of orphans, made him see. He could not stop seeing the work of blood in this place, its quicksilver cruelty, maddening insults to the moon betokened by severed heads and a milk moonface.

ECCO: I…will tell you a story to ease your heart, dear Queen of the Bloodless.

KOS: Please, dear one

ECCO began with Earthlight. Never had he heard of marauding landfolk or the mass harvesting of fish from the seas. But he told what he did know––the whales, the queerfolk of the water, the magical spheres, the world where the seas had found each other through great arms of water in the sky, bringing the world into a kinship of water. And of the burning breathlessness of drowning, endless suffering brought on by the other queen in the sky.

KOS: Please, loved son, you are so full of words for one so young. Still, I want to hear more about the great arms of the seas coming together, and the flying breathing-fish.

ECCO: In both of our worlds, time is not a steady current but curse and weird power creates pools and eddies that wind and stall for rock-ages before they are unstuck or set straight. Time is queer, and I met one of my thousandth descendants, who flew like a gull and could communicate with his mind alone.

KOS: You are…truly blessed to have a line of blood running so long, and to know that it’s so.

ECCO: Though I was in much danger in this unknown future, I think I agree, my Queen.

With all ECCO’s power he remembered the exaltant highways rising in giant arches pulsing in the blue. From atop these vast watery highways ECCO recalled the sight of the Earth bending under him, its blossoming surface empty of pain or darkness. Everything shone. Though he faced near-death at the hands of strange creatures, dashing just out of the reach of the great Medusa looming to greet him, he carried this future in his memory as a treasure held in safekeeping, a check against lurking and murking despair.

KOS: I am slain in spirit by this tale. In your world with no landfolk the Earth turned towards light. I am tempted to say that without these beasts our world might have stretched out to some future near the one you tell of. But…I remember the happy days when those in my care found the truth of water, and land and sea became one kin-without-blood…

KOS: A Queer Sea, arms bending to link the seas of blood, milk, and water inside all creatures. We all need a sea to live, whether outside us or inside.

ECCO’s heart was broken.

***

KOS: It is my turn, my son, to speak to you. It will be so, and you will carry these stories back to Earth with you. I once received a visit from a certain other queen. She did not speak, but her friend and lover read to me a letter I will never forget. It remains the only human language I ever sought to commit to memory––save the customary laws of my children. It seethed through my dreaming times.

It reads:

Seeking Your glorious mercy, we have sought Your sea to hear the words of a Queen lesser than You, a sovereign of blood accustomed “Vile” to our murderers. Take to heart the insults of the faithless Church, and wear them, Your Highness, as a brand––this we said to Ourselves, the lonely and last Regnant Queen of Cainhurst, Deathless. So Vileblood are We. Heed, Your Highness of the Sea vast and begrudging, the word of the mountain, I plead.

Our people are murdered. We fear Your children now lie dead and accursed, or will soon. It seems only Blood, and only Blood deemed worthy, will bring together the people of next dawn in this world. I plead that You deign to grieve my selfsame tears, Lady of Waters, as Our children fade from sight Alike. Together, if you will bear my pretense, we feel the Moons becoming faint, the promise even of daylight unspoiled becoming like a dream, something we the deathless must cruelly endure like timeless winter.

History has been written by the despoilers and cutthroats, my Queen. Our blood, Our queer and vile selves brook no equals or superiors save Yourself in sea or heaven. It is too late to do aught. It is too late to grieve and find peace. But to grieve and break, to wreak one thousand times over Our horror onto the heads of the murderers––this undertaking I urge You to join.

Give not an inch of Your illustrious self. Kill before being killed, oh Queen. Break their bones and give the orphans of this world a sign radiating the majesty of Our Selves, plunging the bloodletters and bloodfuckers of the world into a black obscurity so dense not a stroke of a letter will survive of them. But We, if I may humbly say so, will laugh as they bring their own roof down on top of them.

It is for cruelty, signed, in sorrow,
Cainhurst

***

ECCO suddenly sickened. Cleaving closer and closer to the shore and KOS’s limp corpse, hard anger swelled to fill his lungs and neck. He felt himself sink under its weight. He didn’t even feel the anger firsthand–-it was cold and hard, agelessly stout. In stark relief against this anger he recalled:

HOW GOOD IT IS TO BE BACK IN THE COOL WATERS OF THE EARTH

This curse was not his to understand. As near as KOS was, in truth she was as alien as any being, though she poured herself out to him, wordlessly. ECCO pulled himself away from her, finding himself back among the stars.

Goodbye to the queer sea, hello again. In the cool waters ECCO knew as his home, he heard the chatter of his friends and family. His pod. Bliss, effortless and light.

But sadness and grief and hate live in every ocean, inside or out. And every sea, every heart is unfathomable and bloodless.

I’m 26 and as I get older and older it seems everything worth feeling, having, or doing is wrong or late. Wisdom flies only when the world has lain down to sleep, grief, the teacher of all, crafts her stories in the past tense. My blood, too, is Vile and unfit. I am weak and foolish, a frail bit of dust. But it is only in such bitter and hateful motes that the Love of Creation abides strongly.

We are queer, bloodless, useless EXCEPT TO OURSELVES, which is praiseworthy above all “right” things!!!!!!

In seeing the Great Lake I know that the unfathomable sins of civilization will not stand so tall forever.

 

I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl of the waste places.

I watch, and am become like a sparrow that is alone upon the housetop.

Mine enemies taunt me all the day; they that are mad against me do curse by me.

For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping,

Because of Thine indignation and Thy wrath; for Thou hast taken me up, and cast me away

My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I am withered like grass.

But Thou, O LORD, sittest enthroned for ever; and Thy name is unto all generations.

Psalm 102

Insomnia

I have to teach my weekly tutorial in five hours. I can’t sleep. Tutorials are routine, I’m not worried about them, but still I’m here, heart pounding and thoughts racing at 5:30 am. Granted, I did consume a prodigious amount of caffeine in an effort to alleviate stress and listlessness a few hours ago so I could finish up prepping my tutorial plans. Still, I feel cheated of sleep.

Beyond just putting words onscreen, I don’t have much of a goal in writing this other than one fear: I know that insomnia is a potent trigger for self-harm and other impulsive and harmful behaviours. Never, ever, do I feel more alone, more worthless, more isolated than when I’m deprived of sleep and dreading the next day’s coming responsibilities. My brain won’t let me sleep! How could I ever finish any assignments?

Tomorrow, in all likelihood, I’ll wake up too early, do a sleepy but competent job and attend my office hours with vigilance. Then I’ll once again fail to get to sleep until the sun rises, be too tired to do anything the next day, and so on. It’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over. Once in awhile I’ll have a week or two where laundry and cleaning get done, dishes are washed, clothes put away, efforts made to further long-term projects. But most of the time, to be honest, my brain doesn’t let me do those things.

I can’t even sleep. How am I supposed to achieve anything when the sun comes up and I’m on the hook for more lost hours, forced to go to caffeine sources again and again, the stress compounding and, throughout, a creeping sense of sickening worthlessness creeping in?

I just hope that next week will be better, and there’s no planning for that. There are ways of coping, ways of adjusting slightly, ways of attempting to improve my situation. And I keep all those in mind. But there’s nothing I can do right now––the sleep is already lost, and I’m once again facing down a sickening sunrise wondering if there’s anything, anything! I could do to make it better.

Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

I lost six months of my life, can you help me find them?

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Goya–Incendio de un hospital (~1808)

Losing time is not quite what I expected it to be. In hindsight I should have thought it through better, should have realized to truly lose something I have to remember that I lost it. But time, time presents itself as uniquely precious. Time, whatever it is, structures the very meaning of words, the order of words, the phasing in and out of consciousness and dreams. Nevertheless, it turns out that losing six months of time is not so different from losing a pair of headphones, or the memory of your own phone number, or a line of verse.

It’s astonishing that I can remember the last six months because it is also utterly lost. Likewise for much of the year before that. I can see sunrises and hear conversations and feel the dread of nightmares I know I had during those times, but it might as well be sand sculpture. Un-grasp-able.

Even more frustratingly, I understand why I lost all this time. A misdiagnosed mental illness, a pill for depression that turned me into a marionette, a disastrous five-month labour strike at my university–they all chain together link on link. But again, unlike the vividness of many of my other recent memories predating this misty span of time, these memories are all cobwebs, fog, and stasis. I know I had those times, and I can even see them, but finding them is beyond me. I’m not even sure of what the difference between seeing those memories and finding them is, except that in the former I’m just a third-party observer, stern and spiritual as the Law.

Historical work demands a skillfulness in braiding strands of time into a discernible shape. It’s a learned craft, one that I take great pride in maintaining and advancing. Nevertheless, when it comes to my own life, none of the old trade secrets are any help. I’ve looked at the records, written and otherwise, delved for evidence, applied the necessary theoretical approaches. And? And?

Unfortunately, the result of any personal history that is still in the thick of it–distinct from an autobiography or biography that reflects back on a thing already done–the result is not a tidy paper but a human body. And bodies, whatever I might claim at dinner parties, are not part of my training. So it’s no wonder that, as I’m sifting through historical information, composing essays and chipper correspondence, I misplace a few of my bodies. That wouldn’t be such a problem except–well–once you’ve lost a few of your own bodies, once that trace of physical continuity doesn’t make sense anymore, and your personality seems to be a flitting free agent, and your legs seize up for no physical reason, it’s hard to get any perspective on the body that’s here, now, and soon.

When traumas snatch time from us–I believe time is rarely lost by accident–our work becomes like a historian’s. At some point I will probably shift my shoulders and realize that all that time I thought was missing was instead dead and pressing down on my shoulders, the remnants of all the bodies I left behind while my brain and the troubled lands were torturing me senseless.

I wish my writing could be returning on a happier note, but when I look back on the months since I last published here in November I see only a series of catastrophes. I want, so desperately, to use my writing to slow down, to find some of the fragments that are still distinguishable. I’m not hopeful. Here’s to a new me, and to finding the time I lost.

New Series: Solarpunk and the Aesthetics of Optimism

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Solarpunk aims to develop images and narratives that inspire hope and optimism. As an aesthetic, it visualizes future human achievement. Moreover, it tries to cultivate a tinkering, democratic, and cooperative attitude towards social matters and a reverent attitude towards ecology in its audiences. Those audiences, formed online and through fiction publications, have also produced a great deal of commentary on the “movement,” its goals, and its advantages and shortcomings. Unabashedly utopian and sunny, solarpunk, in the eyes of its boosters and practitioners, professes optimism as an oppositional virtue, projecting a ray of sunlight through the dim clouds of post-apocalyptic pop media.

Not only is solarpunk supposed to inspire real activism and practical solutions to environmental and social problems, its proponents are also, at this stage, highly activist about this nascent subgenre. There is even a manifesto for it. So although it is a literary and artistic tendency first and foremost, many of the authors we’ll be encountering in this new series inject far loftier ambitions. While this seems appropriate given the defiant can-do-it attitude of solarpunk, it also generates a set of interesting questions:

1. What is the relationship between the literary work and any practical activist or infrastructural work done in the name of solarpunk?

2. Does solarpunk aspire to become more than a literary movement or does it sit content appropriating and recontextualizing works that fit the aesthetic but are not formally affiliated with it?

3. How do the creative workers and critics promoting solarpunk conceptualize their own politics–as uniquely solarpunk, or merely influenced by it?

While I can’t answer all of these questions in full, I want to look more closely at this genre because it represents a rather unique post-ironic and anti-nihilist approach to thinking about ecology and technology, society and the individual, and “the end of the world” vs. the end of the world as we know it. My other reason for investigating solarpunk and some of its many close relatives and affiliates is a profound skepticism. To be brief: I am unconvinced that this lustrous approach to “punk” can be the basis of a radical critique of the status quo, at least not at this point. While sentimental cynicism can be just as noxious as untempered idealism (in the dreamer sense, not the Marxist insult), existing critiques of futurism and visions of earthly harmony cast doubt on the project of “re-brightening” science fiction and our collective visions of the future.

In order to think through these fundamental concerns and approach an answer to the three questions I posed earlier, I will be exploring some of the genealogy of solarpunk, its current manifestations, and looking at specific critical writing and image and literary production associated with solarpunk.

My first post will look at Castle and the Sky, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, which have all been claimed as part of the aesthetic heritage of solarpunk and even recommended as part of a “syllabus” for those getting familiar with the subgenre. I want to explore what Miyazaki’s relationship to the stated goals of solarpunk really are and look at his own evolution, since we can’t assume that every film will have the same relationship.

In the second post, I will look at Adam Flynn’s “Notes toward a manifesto” for solarpunk. By putting this document in dialogue with a few other “manifesto-type” documents related to the subgenre, we can get a sense for what sympathetic critics and academics see in solarpunk and explore some reasons why this might be the case.

Third, we’ll delve into a more explicitly political solarpunk-pusher. Specifically, we’ll look at Solarpunk Anarchist’s blog and Facebook presence and the media and audience that they have curated. This gives us a sense of at least one of the vital audiences that solarpunk has generated. Comparing it to some of the more popular solarpunk tumblr blogs, we can use Solarpunk Anarchist as a way to perceive how explicit political commitment matters as far as audience cultivation and ideology. Though solarpunk is political to its core–at least in a moment where it has not been widely commercialized or appropriated by mainstream media–it’s useful to look at a more directly political wing of the subculture to see how solarpunk’s inherent politics might be contrasted and compared to a solarpunk infused with and infusing an anarchist ideology.

Solarpunk’s defiance of nihilistic or pessimistic appraisals of the future is one of its core tenets. For the fourth post, therefore, I’ll be considering some of the nihilist and some non-nihilist critiques of futurism or of optimism more generally. There are many reasons to be suspicious about the rhetoric of hope and light that solarpunk offers, but that hopeful ethos is also its greatest point of differentiation with other -punk subgenres.

Finally, in the fifth and final post, I will conclude with a critical summary of solarpunk as it currently exists. I’ll hopefully be able to get ahold of some of the more prominent solarpunk literature and investigate how short story writers construct their worlds and characters. At the very end, there may be room for speculation about what solarpunk’s contribution to radical ecology and politics might be.

Optimist aesthetics, especially partisan ones that claim an oppositional, counterculture basis, are a rarity today. That much is certain. And through this series of pieces on solarpunk, I hope we can all acquaint ourselves better with this tendency and all of its twisted tendrils.

Surgery and Sterile Futures

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Trans surgery in Canada involves years of waiting lists, consultations, and institutional scrutiny. What makes this process especially difficult is that there is currently only one clinic in the country that is able to offer official services, i.e. ones that are covered by first-payer insurance and thus accessible to the vast majority of trans people. This very short essay outlines what I would call the eerie nature of this process, the way in which bodies are rendered uncanny and disjointed by gatekeeping and forced visibility.

For me, the sheer impregnability of the system creates a sense of foreshortened future and bodily dread. Because trans people are a tiny minority of the population, our bodies are the subject of a great deal of state scrutiny, especially because our physicians do not have any direct sympathy with our situation. Despite all of our visibility as oddities or freaks, however, our bodies are not well understood and medical procedures and treatments for us are heavily restricted and, in the case of estrogen-based hormone therapy, administered with tools designed for cis people first.

So surgery for me, despite the fact that I want it and need it for my mental health, is attached to so much baggage and bizarro-world bureaucracy that it takes on a horrific aspect. The abject uncanniness of wading through so many forms, so many appointments, so many opportunities for any spiteful physician to deny me access to care, creates a warped sense of how attainable surgery even is. And because of past trauma around my body and because of depression, my sense of the future has been dramatically compressed. The future is so uncertain that, under the lens of depression and the eerie oracular and suicidal feelings that I have, I am utterly convinced that my body will be destroyed either in surgery or well before. I am tutored by despair, possessed of a sense of grim finality.

Of course, my intellect assures me that many other people have gone through the process and come through happier than they were before. Of course this does not make me change my mind about wanting surgery. This is still my choice and I still dream about it. Even though I’m aware that surgery is not necessary for all trans people and rejecting surgery would not put my lack of gender in doubt, there is a sterility and hopelessness that dogs me throughout, an eerie desert where future possibilities either lie dormant or cannot be trusted because of persistent mirages.

I suppose there is no way through the desert except through it. And with luck I will participate in abolishing the system that creates such dread and unease. For the sake of trans people now, the gates have to fall and the bureaucracy must be abolished, along with all other impediments to real bodily freedom.

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work

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A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.